South China Sea

Marcos tells Chinese general: South China Sea peace a ‘world issue’ 

Bea Cupin

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Marcos tells Chinese general: South China Sea peace a ‘world issue’ 

KEYNOTE SPEAKER. Marcos opens the 2024 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on May 31, 2024.

Chinese Major General Xu Hui asks if the Philippines is ‘risking’ regional peace by considering 'other parties’ comfort level’ in deciding what actions to take in the South China Sea

MANILA, Philippines – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Friday, May 31, that peace and stability in the South China Sea is a “world issue” amid rising tensions between claimant states, including superpower China.

“When we talk about the South China Sea, we have to also remember that the South China Sea is the passageway, the passageway for half of the world trade. And therefore, the peace and stability of the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation of the South China Sea is a world issue,” said Marcos, the first Philippine President to deliver the keynote address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)’s Shangri-la Dialogue.

After a speech that focused on the importance of upholding international law, of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Centrality, and of middle powers’ role in regional stability, a member of the audience stood up to ask if the Philippines was “[risking]” regional peace by “[considering] other parties’ comfort level” in its actions at sea.

Chinese Major General Xu Hui, Commandant of the Chinese military’s International College of Defense Studies, went on a long preamble about ASEAN centrality before being prompted by IISS executive chairman Sir John Chipman to ask his question.

The one-star general, who did not introduce himself on the microphone, asked: “In the eyes of the international community, some of [the] Philippines’ behavior in recent days, recent times, it now sounds like you really consider other parties’ comfort level. And there is a risk of ruining the regional long-term, long-lasting peace since the end of the… colonized history. What’s your comment on that? Thank you very much.”

Marcos said the Philippines “still remains true to the principles” of the ASEAN bloc.

“If you examine more closely the remarks that I just made, we precisely focus on ASEAN centrality… so the Philippines still remains true to the principles that were established and upon which ASEAN was born. And I think, as I said, that many of these things, we no longer speak of today, but we must,” said Marcos.

“I would even go far as to say there is no such thing as a regional issue any longer…. We must include all parties in the discussion because now it is not just ASEAN member states who are stakeholders. And it is quite easy to see that it is, in fact, the entire world that have become stakeholders in the peace and stability of our region,” he added.

Xu’s question falls right in line with how Beijing has framed tensions in the South China Sea – that it’s the Philippines who is causing trouble in those waters. China has also accused the Philippines of allowing itself to be dictated to by its treaty-ally, the United States.

In previous engagements and fora, Marcos has insisted that tensions in the region should not be seen through the lens of superpower competition alone.

Premiere defense summit

The Shangri-la Dialogue is considered the region’s premiere defense summit because of its format – in allowing delegates to interact more directly and intimately with each other. It’s been the setting for frank, sometimes spirited exchanges between top defense and security officials in the region.

In his speech, Marcos said, “lines that [the Philippines] draw in our waters are not derived from just our imagination, but from international law,” a barely-veiled reference to China’s argument for claiming a huge part of the South China Sea. The Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea are based on UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as the 2016 Arbitral Ruling that deemed China’s sweeping claim illegal.

Tensions between Beijing and Manila have risen in the past year or so, with the Philippines’ new-found vigor in defending its rights and claims in the West Philippine Sea, or part of the South China Sea that includes the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Confrontations between the two countries out at sea are tense and precarious, with China wielding its coast guard’s water cannons in attempts to stop Philippine missions both to Ayungin and Panatag Shoals. The Philippines’ foreign affairs secretary has described the relationship as “choppy,” while his Chinese counterpart has described it as “at a crossroads.”

Relations turned even tenser after it was revealed – initially through the Chinese embassy in Manila, no less – that Chinese diplomats assigned to the Philippines had illegally recorded a phone call with a Philippine military general. The Chinese embassy claimed this was proof that Manila made, then turned its back on supposed agreements concerning Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines has denied China’s agreement claims.

ASEAN is a regional bloc that counts the Philippines as its founding member. Several claimant states to areas and features in the South China Sea – the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia – are also members of ASEAN. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.